Off With Her Film!

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This has been a very mild session of the Cannes Film Festival — not just in the weather, but in the selection of films and the response of the 4,000 journalists here. The films on display in the first week had their partisans and their detractors, without provoking much acrimonious dispute. But reviewers do love to dispute each other, and the world premiere of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette gave us the chance finally to argue over a movie.

Based on Antonia Fraser's biography of the Austrian princess who became the bride of Louis XVI, and the last, unlucky Queen of France, Marie Antoinette might have been one of those films that some liked, some didn't. But at the end of the movie's first screening a few critics expressed their displeasure with a smattering of boos, which Variety, the preeminent showbiz trade publication, strangely cited as being "Gallic-accented."

The suggestion was that the French took Coppola's gaily revisionist view of 18th century history as an insult to their civic pride. But the French critics were mostly supporters of the film. Michel Ciment, the doyen of Positif magazine, and a member of a jury of critics convened by the daily Cannes edition of Screen International, gave Marie Antoinette four palms, the highest rating. The critic for Les Echoes called it "a superb film," and the one for Le Figaro said it was "prettily filmed." The French website pegged the Coppola movie, along with Pedro Almodôvar's Volver and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, as one of the top three contenders for the Palme d'Or.

Coppola was told of the boos at the post-screening press conference, where she was flanked by stars Kirsten Dunst Marie) and Jason Schwartzman (Louis XVI) — and, seated just off to the side, her father Francis Coppola. She acknowledged that she was disappointed by the news, but added, in true trouper form, "It's better to get a reaction, it's better than a mediocre response. Hopefully some people will enjoy it. I think it's not for everybody." One of the journalists told her that some critics applauded at the end of the film.

The fight, then, was really about whether there was a fight. There was not; more an animated discussion among people who agree to differ. The reaction from American critics (summarized on the Filmmaker magazine blog) was more energetically mixed. But all parties observed the rules of decorum.

So you may dismiss the report that the film, which ends before the beheading of the Queen, resulted in the lynching of its director. Indeed, the boos may have helped Coppola's film, creating a controversy that demanded the taking of sides. Nothing stirs impassioned defense like an attack, real or perceived. If the film wins a big prize here at Cannes, Coppola can thank the naysayers. (Some people thought Coppola took the criticism to heart when she was a no-show at Thursday's official Festival dinner in her honor. Truth is, she'd got an offer she couldn't refuse:an invitation to the AMFAR benefit hosted by Sharon Stone and Robin Williams at the prohibitively posh Moulin des Mougins restaurant.)

But Marie Antoinette does raise several issues to debate. And from this viewer, the vote would be a respectful non.

The production is certainly a sumptuous confection. Given access to the grounds and interiors of Versailles, Coppola captures the splendor of aristocratic excess, aided artfully by the work of production designer KK Barrett and costume designer Milena Canonero. The quiet riot of pastels and ruffles hint at Marie's isolation from the shouts of revolution in the Paris streets. Dunst is a living porcelain doll, dimpled and sweet. Her Marie may be ignorant of the great roiling world outside, but her job was not to be spokeswoman for the masses. It was to provide a male heir for the throne.

Coppola's artistic mission was to parallel Marie and her retinue with today's modern youth, cocooned in their own search for pleasure. Straddling the centuries, Coppola puts her idle rich in period dress and accompanies their fatuous frolics with raucous rock music. The spirit here is less the divine decadence of Paris, France, than the spoiled shallowness of Paris Hilton. Obsessed with their games, gossip and petty erotic intrigues, these Valley children of privilege are oblivious to the needs and sufferings of oppressed humanity. Coppola, herself a princess of movie royalty, may be painting a corrosive portrait of a generation that is both pampered and blinkered. They can't care about the world outside themselves. I mean, really, like, why bother?

Her characters give little evidence of breeding and education; they speak not in epigrams but in clichés. The events of the last Bourbon monarch are not dramatized, merely alluded to. Oh, all right, Schwartzman's Louis XVI says at a meeting of his ministers, raise taxes; send troops to America. The intonations, especially of the American actors, are uninflected, perfunctory. And with the polyglot ensemble of actors speaking English in American, British, French and Italian accents, the film has the feeling of the original sound track of one of those European co-productions before the Babel of voices was dubbed into a single coherent vocal style. Though this may accurately reflect the cacophony of the Versailles court, it is painful to listen to.

Coppola's approach is piquant, and it could be fun in a five-minute Saturday Night Live sketch, but it does not sustain a two-hour treatment. After a few scenes, audiences are likely to say, "We get the point." The result is a shallow film about shallow people — a cinematic pastry that leaves a sour taste. As the French would say, ce bonbon n'est pas bon.

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